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Pontmain is a village in the Mayenne in northern France. In 2006 it had a population of 879. It came to prominence in the Catholic church in 1871 when, on 17 January, some children from the village claimed to see an apparition of Our Lady in the sky. The Franco-Prussian war was raging and the Germans had overrun much of France. They were on the point of taking the regional town of Laval about 50km to the South-South-East of Pontmain. The apparition appeared at about 5:30pm on 17th January which, by coincidence, is the same time that the German commander making the advance on Laval received orders to halt his advance.

With extraordinary rapidity, on 2nd February 1872, Mgr. Wicart, who was Bishop of the diocese of Laval at the time in which Pontmain falls, formally acknowledged the apparition in a statement as follows :

Nous jugeons que l'Immaculée Vierge Marie, Mère de Dieu a véritablement apparu, le 17 janvier 1871, à Eugène Barbedette, Joseph Barbedette, Françoise Richer et Jeanne-Marie Lebossé, dans le hameau de Pontmain.

We judge that the immaculate Virgin Mary, mother of God truly appeared, on January 17 1871, to Eugène Barbedette, Joseph Barbedette, Françoise Richer and Jeanne-Marie Lebossé, in the hamlet of Pontmain.

As a result of all this, it was decided to build a new church in the village and work started in 1873. By 1877 it was finished. Pope Pius X elevated it to the status of a basilica during 1908. For more details about Our Lady of Pontmain, please see the Wikipedia entry here. Incidentally, it was the request from the Holy See in 1904 for the resignation of Bishop Pierre-Joseph Geay (1896-1904) which was one of the reasons given by the French Republic for breaking with the pope and preparing the separation of Church and State which happened formally in 1905.

Map showing Pontmain at the bottom of the Cherbourg Peninsula, quite close to Rennes, courtesy Google Maps

What has Pontmain got to do with Our Lady of Lourdes & St Cecilia in Blandford? 

Some years ago, Mike Chaffourrier, a Blandford parishioner, shared a property in Normandy. One day his French neighbours told him about Pontmain and so he went to visit the basilica there. On his return, he told some friends in Blandford and the 'Pontmain Group' was born.

Mike organised a group of eight parishioners including Fr. Ciaran McGuinness as spiritual director and they made their first visit to Pontmain in September 2005, also visiting Mont St.Michel and Lisieux. A smaller group went to Pontmain the following year and the group plans to return in September 2010 travelling the almost the same route but this time it will include a visit to the abbey at Solesmes instead of Lisieux.

Mike Chaffourier writes:

We caught the fast craft from Poole to Cherbourg - arriving just before 11 a.m. Our first stop was at Carentan where we visited the 12th century church of Our Lady. During the Hundred Years War the church fell into disrepair and the restoration was finally finished in the fifteenth century. The stained glass is particularly fine and very interesting.

We had hoped to continue to St.Malo cathedral but a rather lengthy lunch made that impractical so we stopped in Avranches. In the hotel Ruth Hiscock slipped in getting out of the shower, broke a bone in her wrist and a trip to the local hospital resulted. Next morning she was fit to continue and we made our way to Mont St.Michel for Mass. In the past we have been to Vespers in the Abbey at the summit. Today, one or two of the more senior "pilgrims" opted to go half way only up the Mount so Mass was heard in the tiny parish church of St.Pierre. Not as grand as the Abbey, this little church is quite beautiful and Mass there is an absolute delight.

From Mont St.Michel we drove in leisurely fashion to the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes (about 40km south-east of Laval and not to be confused with the Solesmes in the Nord region near the Belgian border). Here, in the lovely Abbey church, we attended Vespers. The next morning we returned for sung Mass and were able again to appreciate the wonderful Gregorian chant. Following the French Revolution, Gregorian Chant was in great peril but through the efforts of the monks here at Solesmes, it was preserved and today can be enjoyed not only here but elsewhere including Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. Solesmes Abbey has its own website

After Mass we headed for Pontmain, where we arrived in time for Vespers. Pontmain is a very special place. After our usual enjoyable last night we returned for Mass at the basilica which was followed by The Angelus.

A stop for shopping on the way back to Cherbourg, the fast craft again, this time to Portsmouth, and we were home before midnight. Tired but happy pilgrims... Our thanks, as ever, to Father Ciaran whose cheerful devotion is an example to us all.

If you would like to know more about the Pontmain Group then please do contact Mike Chaffourier on 01258 459995